New Orleans Recovery Chief Says City Rebounding

From 2006: Edward Blakely

New Orleans recovery czar Edward Blakely worked on reconstruction projects in San Francisco after the 1989 earthquake, and in Oakland after the 1991 wildfires. We spoke with Blakely in December 2006, soon after he took his post in New Orleans, and we check in on his progress.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Back in December we talked with Edward Blakely about the recovery effort in New Orleans. Professor Blakely had worked on recoveries in the San Francisco Bay area after the earthquake of 1989 and the wildfires of 1991. And last fall he signed on with Mayor Ray Nagin to jumpstart the New Orleans recovery. He joins us once again. Welcome back to the program.

Professor EDWARD BLAKELY (Policy, Planning and Development, University of South Carolina): Thank you for having me back.

SIEGEL: Can you first give us a progress report on New Orleans' recovery?

Prof. BLAKELY: Well, New Orleans is recovering quite well on its own. People are coming back, rebuilding their homes. It's alive. It's kind of like a beehive with people building things, stores are opening. Clearly, there's some big-ticket items that are missing. Many of our hospitals are still shut. We still have to do a lot with some of our major infrastructure. But citizens are kind of coming in and rebuilding the city on their own.

SIEGEL: There is a story in Monday's New Orleans Times-Picayune about the state of Louisiana's Road Home program. That's the program to help people rebuild their homes. One hundred thousand applicants - and for many reasons, the paper says, including many applicants' indecision over whether to take the money and rebuild or not, the number who have actually seen - in the Times-Picayune's phrase - a nickel's worth of their grant is under 500. Something is wrong there.

Mr. BLAKELY: Something's very wrong there. The program was supposed to help people back into their housing, and that means they have to have replacement funds, not a formula that takes out this and that and another thing and makes some guesstimate on what their place was before Katrina. So I think the program was not properly conceived originally. It should've been aimed at replacement. It should've been aimed at a combination of grants and loans. It should've been a simple program. It should've been a program run by people in the banking and insurance industry, rather than an engineering firm.

SIEGEL: It should've been. Is it going to be now? Will there be any change to the program?

Mr. BLAKELY: Well, clearly that's not my call. This is the governor's program. I think there will be significant pressure to make some changes. She said she would like to see some changes made, but those changes are going to have to be made right now.

SIEGEL: Do the people of New Orleans need that money, or some money, to prime the pump of recovery to make people decide that they will rebuild and come back to the city?

Mr. BLAKELY: They need this money. This is the money that is essential to them, and they need it unfettered.

SIEGEL: According to the Louisiana Weekly, you were threatening to quit last week, if your office - as opposed to the state's New Orleans Recovery Office -didn't get control of federal funds. Do you now have the authority that you feel you need to actually do the job in the city of New Orleans?

Mr. BLAKELY: Oh yes, oh yes, within the city? Absolutely. With the mayor and the city council, I have all the authority I need.

SIEGEL: You're called a czar. That's a lot of authority that you would have -

Mr. BLAKELY: Well, I think that's a misnomer. It should be qualified. I like to call myself the teacher, or the quarterback, or the coach - someone who helps direct things but doesn't necessarily control the entire menu or template.

SIEGEL: Just one last point. Even following the news in New Orleans from afar, it's hard to miss the fact that there's a bad crime wave of…

Mr. BLAKELY: Yes.

SIEGEL: …violent crime in New Orleans. Does that threaten the recovery of the city if people are looking at what's going on in the city and saying it's a dangerous place, worse than it may have been before. That might turn people away.

Mr. BLAKELY: Well, I don't know if it's worse than it was before, but certainly it's getting an awful lot of publicity, and it seems that the police department along with the FBI, and so on, are beginning to move in on this issue and deal with it. But it is a real concern of mine. It's a concern of the mayor's.

And I think what we have is a situation where some people - and this is true of the kind of petty criminal element that exists in every city - all of a sudden, there are a large numbers of those who've been drifting back from the Houstons and the Dallas's and so on, where they were pushed out, and the only place they know is this place. So when they congregate and don't have the intermediate levels of people who would be there kind of providing a buffer, things are worse than they seem.

SIEGEL: Well Professor Blakely, I won't call you the recovery czar, in that case - the recovery quarterback of New Orleans. Thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. BLAKELY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Edward Blakely, who spoke with us from New Orleans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's Noah Adams hit the streets of New Orleans this morning to take in Mardi Gras. You can read his impressions at our Web site, npr.org.

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The earliest preemie should head home from the hospital this week. We'll talk with one of the doctors responsible for her care. That story's just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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